It may be a story of the “if you build it they will come,” variety and while it is magical, it is no accident that a group of highly articulate, bright, young, entrepreneurial farmers with diverse backgrounds have found themselves working together in the Anderson Valley foodshed. What was once the old Stanley Johnson ranch at the southern reaches of Yorkville has been transformed into Acorn Ranch, a 2000-plus acre pig farm.
Named for the forage provided by the oak habitat of rolling hills to the east of Highway 128 between Cloverdale and Boonville, Acorn Ranch is now home to Cinta Senese (CHIN-tah SEE-nay-zay) pigs, a rare and ancient Italian breed prized by salumi artisans for their tender and succulent meat and fat. They are as distinct from our local feral population as could be with a large white band around their otherwise black bodies. That they have made the arduous journey is remarkable in its own right but less so upon meeting the group of intrepid farmers.
Adam Hyde and wife, Kaye Jones are the managing partners of the enterprise envisioned and funded by Peter and Mimi Buckley of Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg. Though Adam is a Boston native and Kaye hails from the Portland Oregon area, they met at Schumacher College which is located at the southern tip of England and named for the influential economist E. F. Schumacher who penned the iconic, “Small is Beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered.” Both, Kaye and Adam, coming from rural, farming communities had gone to Schumacher to pursue advanced degrees in System Science, which is the science of understanding ecological systems.
After returning to the U.S. they married and worked towards their dream of owning and managing a farm and raising a family. Adam will tell you, “Its genetic, must farm,” as a grin edges the corners of his mouth even just saying the phrase. Their educations led to an incredible variety of work besides the farming that included site reclamation, green marketing consultancies and Kaye's assistance as a farm scout for the businessman turned philanthropist and farmer, Peter Buckley. Kaye helped them find the farm of their dreams just on the outskirts of Healdsburg.
Peter had made a sizable fortune in the clothing industry as CEO for Esprit-Europe and Esprit-International. After selling that business he generated income through investments but was disillusioned with financial markets. As a result, he and his wife, Mimi, made the very conscious choice to literally put their money where their mouths were, namely moving their assets into farming enterprises. The Buckleys have large commercial farms in Oregon and the California Central Valley but it is the Healdsburg venture, Front Porch Farm, that is the home and lifestyle that epitomizes their philosophies best. “You literally can see the whole farm from your front porch,” Peter says.
In the intervening years since school, Kaye and Adam bought their homestead in Columbia Gorge, near Portland and environs where Kaye had been raised. Kaye and Adam and Peter and Mimi, of course, frequently discussed farming practices and business, and one of those discussions was about what the brand-savvy Peter's breed of pig should be. Intrigued after hearing about the revered Cinta Senese pigs from visiting Italian friends, Peter began considering the idea of being the only American farmer to raise a pig with the venerable Italian ethos of the Cintas.
Adam recalls the evening they received an email from Peter. They were out to dinner for the first time with their new son, Rye, when Kaye, upon reading the email, turned to Adam and said Peter just asked if we would like to try to import the Cintas. During what was to become an arduous two-and-a-half year trek through the maze of international departments of agriculture, it dawned on both Kaye and Peter that what made so many of their farm searches less than appealing for vegetable farming, that is to say hilly, untillable terrain, actually was ideal for the naturally wild land foragers that the prized Cintas were. Upon hearing about the Johnson Ranch coming up for sale, two things stood out as salient features of the landscape. First, though not foremost, was the size, at over 2000 acres there would be lots of room for the pigs to range. Secondly, the property bore a striking resemblance to Siena, Italy, at the southern end of Tuscany, whose rolling wooded hills was the natural home to these docile creatures. Acorn Ranch was perfect for adapting the ancient method of raising the pigs extensively in forests and pasture to forage on acorns, chestnuts mushrooms and rhizomes.
By this time Adam told Peter that rather than working on the fringes of the project, he would like to be involved in developing the business model for a niche pork offering based on the uniqueness of the Cinta breed and a forest-raised rearing system. Peter couldn't have been more pleased and made Adam and Kaye managing partners in the venture and Adam the CEO and Acorn Ranch General Manager. An air of mentorship, the best kind, the kind that can't really be seen except by those within the relationship, was evident. Kaye, who had struggled mightily through all the red tape, was delighted to have Adam take on the bulk of the day-to-day operations of the ranch as their second child, daughter Fisher, had just been born.
With the dream ebbing quickly into realty, Kay and Adam needed to start focusing on building a team to run the farming operation. During their formal research for a swineherd manager they came across itinerant professional cook and world traveler, Drew Marquis. Drew had come to Italy to pursue his love of cooking. Leaving his native Oklahoma via culinary stints in Dallas, Texas, Drew left to attend an internship at Tenuta di Spannocchia just outside of Siena. He had determined to learn everything he could about pig butchery and atisanal meat (salumi) preparation. The internship ended and he spent time traveling and WOOFing (the practice of working on organic farms in trade for room and board) throughout northern Italy.
Before long he returned to live and work again at the farm of his internship, only this time to work directly in the Cinta pig program. Drew's experiences guided him to a desire for working with the Cinta and a natural collaboration was formed upon his introduction to Kaye and Adam. Drew is now the swine manager at Acorn Ranch and sees an important part of his job as maintaining the integrity of their product final. While most breeds are raised for less than a year before butcher, the Cintas are allowed to mature for 18 to 24 months to develop their distinctive flavors. And if you ask any of the residents at Acorn, they will happily attest to the fact that Drew has not abandoned his love for cooking.
Once the farm was purchased there were huge infrastructure needs. For this Kaye and Adam knew just who they wanted to call, Kitts McCabe. Kitts had been living with his wife in Santa Barbara developing woodworking and welding skills and along with his pleasing, easy going nature was a natural fit for retrofitting the what was once a sheep ranch into a pig haven . A brief sojourn to the property and the project of welding the pig's pens, led to full time employment. Kitts and his wife were already talking about looking for a different social and economic strata than the overly developed Santa Barbara provided. Residing now in Geyserville, Kitts makes the daily commute up to Yorkville and the camaraderie the young group of farmers provide. He sighs that he and his wife still haven't tapped into the social life they are hoping for, but it's been difficult because she has been pregnant and unable to get out and about much while Kitts works on the remote ranch.
The old Johnson farmhouse was now going through a major remodel to create a separate office and living quarters for the enterprise. The project was headed up by a Buckley employee from Esprit days, Marci Ellison. One of her employees, Jaime Prado, seamlessly became a full time employee under Adam. “He just fit,”says Adam. Marci's loss. Hardworking and easy going appeared to emerge as the ranch employee criteria. Jaime does everything from organizing crews and work projects to individual jobs that just need to get done
Jaime and Adam, as do Drew and Tommy, speak fluent Spanish as often as English. Part of the music of the daily ranch life is the interchangeable mix of language. Enter Francisco (Paco) Alvarez, who is a local Boonville fence builder Adam had good things about. Miles, literally, of good fencing was required to keep the feral population of pigs out of the Cintas range. “Paco shows the rest of us what hard work every day really is,” Adam effuses. “We would not be at this point without him and his crew.”
For Adam and Kaye there was a feeling of satisfaction of the team having been formed if not some sense of being overwhelmed at the beginning. It was at this point that Tommy Otey entered the picture. He had seen an ad posted for a swine manager position but had been involved in work in another part of the country. The more he thought about it, however, the more he felt pulled to at least inquire about the position. When he called Adam he said, “you know, I think I might be who you are looking for.” Adam felt like the team had been created but was so impressed with Tommy's crop and livestock farming resume, so he invited him out to have a look at Acorn.
A native of Asheville, North Carolina, Tommy attended Warren Wilson College which is one of only a handful of colleges in the U.S. that requires students to participate on the schools working farm as part of earning a degree. At Warren Wilson Tommy earned a BS in Conservation Biology. After working for an organic vegetable grower in Asheville and doing construction in the off season for a couple of years, Tommy headed off to Colorado where he earned his masters degree in Integrated Resource Management.
The visit to Acorn Ranch became an exercise in mutual admiration as Adam notes Tommy hit the ground running with his working knowledge of farming practices and farm machinery maintenance. His title is now Crop and Rangeland manager but his goals are no less than maintaining the integrity of the landscape in balance with the pig operation. No easy task as anyone in Mendocino can attest to the ravages of the wild pigs that have ruined more than a few local landscapes. Part of Tommy's plan to move the ranch towards “feed self-sufficiency” is to reintroduce perennial bunchgrasses, serving also to mitigate erosion.
While Adam laments that he had no housing for Tommy, Tommy delights in the yurt they bought and moved onto the platform he helped build high on a hill surrounded by the indigenous oaks. Torn between construction and farming, Tommy put in long hours this past fall planting barley and other forage crops that will supplement the feed of the growing pigs. To Adam's lament Tommy smiles and says, almost to himself, “where else would I want to be.”
The goal of Acorn Ranch “runs along a continuum,” says Adam. They are striving always to create a self sustaining system that enhances their environment . They have vetted restauranteurs, and chefs throughout the Bay Area and the Northwestern states who look forward to a 2014 debut of the new American Cinta Sonoma whole carcass and salumi offerings. There is an excitement churning in the major newspapers, culinary and otherwise. This may be the advent of something huge. It has become something greater than the sum of its parts. A new way of farming that is as old as the hills.